News / Middle East

Egypt Struggles to Define 'Free Speech'

Egypt Struggles to Define 'Free Speech'i
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February 19, 2013 2:50 PM
Egyptians are struggling over whether limits should be placed on free speech, one of the many rights people fought for in their uprising two years ago. VOA's Elizabeth Arrott has more from Cairo.
Egypt Struggles to Define 'Free Speech'
Elizabeth Arrott
From online activism to protests in the street, Egyptians have exercised their right to free speech over the past two years in ways unimaginable even in the recent past.

But novelist Alaa el-Aswany believes that sense of freedom is illusory, with the government of President Mohamed Morsi pursuing its own agenda.

"The formula is the following: you write whatever you want, I'm going to do whatever I want," says el-Aswany.

He believes the current leadership has cracked down even more than ex-president Hosni Mubarak.

"Mr. Morsi brought about 10 writers to the court who were accused of insulting the president. He did that in like four months, six months," el-Aswany says. "Mubarak, in 30 years, he did that three times."

It's not just insults to political leaders that prompt a reaction. A U.S.-made video impugning Islam's Prophet Muhammad set off an attack on the American Embassy and brought death sentences, in absentia, for the Egyptians who made it.

An Islamist view of free speech can differ dramatically from the concept embraced in the West.  

Safwat al-Ghani, of Gama'a Islamiya, says there is a different understanding of freedom. He favors freedom which is controlled by “respect for sacredness and the conventions of Islam.”

That view has wide support in this deeply religious country. But for many, protection for political figures is another matter.

Political satirist Bassem al-Youssef is one of Egypt's most popular comedians, but prosecutors don't find his mocking of the president so amusing.

Yet the investigation backfired. The spotlight turned on the prosecutors, and after much public ridicule, they dropped their case.

Publisher Rania al-Malki says the government needs to ease up. "Once you become the ruling administration, you've got to have more tolerance for people like Bassem Youssef."

But while she sees free speech flourishing now, she's concerned about the undefined future, especially in laws likely to be drafted through the prism of Islamism.

"We have a situation here where the constitution has mandated the creation of two new bodies to regulate the media," al-Malki says. "But we have no clue what that is going to entail."

Across the region, post-revolution states are redefining the rights and freedoms of their citizens. As the Arab world's most populous nation, Egypt might set the standard that others will follow.

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Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous
February 20, 2013 1:40 AM
Human Rights & Freedoms do not have COMPASS preferences.

by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
February 19, 2013 7:46 PM
Freedom of speech is alien to most Moslem countries, Arab countries and in the Middle East. Since most of the countries are ruled by dictators and emerging democracies, everything is under the Moslem guidelines of the seventh century. Even in the so called secular democracy of Turkey, freedom of speech and expression are illusive. There is no tolerence towards ethiests, other religions, freedom of speech and self expression. Criticising or making fun of the rulers is a crime in these countries. Some rulers claim they are even incarnations of God just like the pharoahs of Egypt. Even in non-Moslem countries the rulers used religion to enhance their power. Making fun or joke of Allah or Moslem religion by believers or non believers will enrage the mullahs and clerics with fatwa to kill the person over-riding the rulers. The rule of law does not exist in most Moslem countries. It is only the rule of clerics that exist in these countries.

The root cause of all this preoccupation by the relgion and rulers is because of lack of eductaion, especially the women. Women's right to eduction, ware whatever they want, work wherever they want, go anywhere they want without a male escort or at least drive a car in public are constrained by the edicts of the clerics tolerated by the rulers.

If the rulers cannot control the public, the rulers use religion as a weapon. If both the rulers and the clerics fail to restrain the freedom of speech, there comes protests originating from the mosques. If Ayatollah rules Iran, the Moslem clerics rules other Moslem countries with the tacit approval of rulers. If the clerics and the rulers cannot control the freedom of speech, they incite their followers to attack the individuals, other beliefs or religions or people of the any kind of opposing view.

Why all the political protests in the Moslem countries occur on fridays after prayers at the mosques? Mosques are not only the place of worship, but also the center of politics instigated by the clerics of opposing religious and political beliefs. But even the protests for freedom originating from the mosques does not produce or ensure freedom of speech as known in the western countries.

by: ali baba from: new york
February 19, 2013 7:43 PM
freedom of speech, separation of church from state ,and democracy are western ideas. .these ideas can not exist in Islamic state. freedom speech can be interpreted that each imam can produce fatwa to kill..Islam is the state. any idea does not match with Islam is automatically rejected. democracy in middle east is the fancy and hallucination of American writer

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